Starting off a film with a voice over- is it a crutch?


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Okay, let me just kick this off by saying I've been a lurker on these forums for a while, they're pretty cool. I'm a screen writing student. Anyways, I'm a daily visitor to (amazingly awesome site) and today's script was The Last Kiss (, written by Paul Haggis (adapted form an Italian script I believe). The very first line is a voice-over with Michael, telling us he's 29 years old, and he'll be 30 next month. He goes on to basically set up the entire story in voice over.

The script yesterday was I Think I love My Wife (, written by Chris Rock and Louis C.K. A couple lines in, the exact same thing- "Hi, I'm Richard Cooper, I'm 30 years old, and I'm bored out of my fucking mind." "That's my wife..." etc.

I haven't seen either film, but why is this device used so frequently by screenwriters? I see this all the time in major scripts... why? Every time I write out a screenplay, I try to avoid voice over as much as possible unless I'm using it as a specific device, like characters being self-referential or something. Isn't film communicated in dialogue and the language of facial expression as emotion? How does opening, explanatory voice over help to get to that end? It seems like a crutch a lot of screenwriters use... I don't know.


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Occasionally it works as a 'style statement', but most of the time it's just a cheap way to work around a lack of imagination.


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voice overs can be good

voice overs can be good

Conventional wisdom says "avoid voice-overs," but you can always find films with great voice-overs.

Lots of indie films use voice-overs. I love the one in CLOCKWATCHERS, one of my favorite films from the 1990s.

As a viewer, I have no problems with voice-overs, provided it's literate.

I think the main problem with voice-overs is that they're often a cheap expository device. A lazy way to reveal character. But if you use voice-overs in another manner, I think they're fine.

For instance, if a voice-over just says what the character's going through, that may be bad. But if the character's "voice" is strong and distinctive, so that his voice-over reveals more than the mere words express, well, that can be good.


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I don't think its by default a "crutch". Let's say that it can be one, but it definetely isn't one automatically. Have you guys seen: American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Zentropa, The Element of Crime, A Clockwork Orange? Not to mention V for Vendetta, and Lord of the Rings, and many, many more.... I'll make a list sometime if you want of really good movies that start with voiceovers.

And those are all incredible movies from start to finish. It bothers me when people just lightly dismiss something as a "crutch". Its like trying to build a house while you throw away that saw because its a "crutch" and that screwdriver because its a "crutch". The term is: Tool. Voiceovers in general are a tool at the disposal of the screenwriter, not something they should conciously avoid because someone tells them its a "crutch".

Those are beautiful openings (and endings) with voiceovers, and still visually stunning.

I don't think filmmaking is simple enough to generalize on this point. Books on screenwriting might say that its a crutch (because they're full of generalizations), but just because the person who wrote that book "says so", doesn't mean that he/she is right. The point of screenwriting is to tell the story you want to tell, not the story someone else wants you tell...


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Voice-Overs shouldn't be used unless it's stylish or it is necessary to move the story along. Memento is a great example, using them throughout the entire movie, because it was necessary in that film. It is, in part, what made it so great.

The usage in I Think I Love My Wife and National Lampoon's Van Wilder is alright in my opinion, because it's sort of funny. But if it's just to introduce the character when it could be done much better in more imaginative ways, yeah, it is a crutch.

I myself try to avoid it as much as possible in the beginning and end.


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There are two arguments:

To open with a voice-over is a crutch if:
- It describes the action going on on-screen.
- It is cliche, "My name is John Doe, and I hate my life."
- It describes something that could be shown instead of said.
- The dialogue is boring, tepid, and unoriginal.

To open with a voice-over is effective if:
- You are an A-List star, established screenwriter, a director with a few hits under your belt (Chris Rock, Charlie Kaufman, Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
- The action is in direct contrast to the action ("I love it when the sunlight hits my face," and the sun is exploding and melting people's faces clean off.)
- It is not cliche (watch Amelie)
- It is the exact opposite of what is being shown (watch Fight Club)
- The dialogue is catchy, original, fun, humorous (watch Van Wilder)

And remember, a voice-over does not make a boring scene any less dull. If it's a bad scene, it's either a bad scene with voice-over, or a bad scene without voice-over.


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what if the voice over spans from like opening credits with let's say a black background to actual dialog with some characters in a diner or something.

for example

What would win in a fight: a polar bear or an alligator?
Cut to:

Jim is sitting with Sally at a table waiting for their food.

Like take out any type of environmental advantages. Just a one on one.


Technically that's not voice over, it's off-screen dialog. Since Jim is actually in the scene, it's not considered a voice over. The only reason you don't see him is because you haven't actually shown the scene yet. it should actually say "JIM (O.S.)"

As far as the whole crutch argument goes, I think you should avoid it unless it's absolutely necessary. When you're writing, however, sometimes it's good to put the VO in initially, just so you can get your story and ideas down on paper, and then, once you've written your first draft, you can go back and figure out how to replace the VO with something visual. It can still be useful in the writing process, even if it doesn't make it to the final draft.


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Good point. Personally I'd say to go back through the script after you finish it and see if there's any line of dialog you can remove, whether or not it's a voiceover.